The Social Network, the new movie about the founding of Facebook. The movie is set during my first year teaching at Harvard, and in fact there is a scene where I'm shown teaching the Operating Systems course (in a commanding performance by Brian Palermo -- my next choice was Brad Pitt, but I'm thrilled that Brian was available for the role). The scene even shows my actual lecture notes on virtual memory. Of course, the content of the scene is completely fictional -- Mark Zuckerberg never stormed out of my class (and I wouldn't have humiliated him for it if he had) -- although the bored, glazed-over look of the students in the scene was pretty much accurate.
It's a great movie, and very entertaining, but there are two big misconceptions that I'd like to clear up. The first is that the movie inaccurately portrays Harvard as a place full of snobby, rich kids who wear ties and carry around an inflated sense of entitlement. Of course, my view (from the perspective of a Computer Science faculty member) might be somewhat skewed, but I've never seen this in my seven years of teaching here. Harvard students come from pretty diverse backgrounds and are creative, funny, and outgoing. I've had students from all corners of the world and walks of life in my classes, and I learn more from them than they'll ever learn from me -- the best part of my job is getting to know them. I've only seen one student here wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and I'm pretty sure he was being ironic.
The second big problem with the movie is its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. He comes across in the film as an enormous asshole, tortured by the breakup with his girlfriend and inability to get into the Harvard Final Clubs. This is an unfair characterization and not at all the Mark Zuckerberg that I know. The movie did a good job at capturing how Mark speaks (and especially how he dresses), but he's nowhere near the back-stabbing, ladder-climbing jerk he's made out to be in the film. He's actually an incredibly nice guy, super smart, and needless to say very technically capable. If anything, I think Mark was swept up by forces that were bigger and more powerful than anyone could have expected when the Facebook was first launched. No doubt he made some mistakes along the way, but it's too bad that the movie vilifies him so. (Honestly, when I first heard there was a movie coming out about Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg as the main character, I couldn't believe it -- the quiet, goofy, somewhat awkward Mark that I know hardly sounded like a winning formula for a big-budget Hollywood film.)
The take-away from the movie is clear: nerds win. Ideas are cheap and don't mean squat if you don't know how to execute on them. To have an impact you need both the vision and the technical chops, as well as the tenacity to make something real. Mark was able to do all of those things, and I think he deserves every bit of success that comes his way. As I've blogged about before, I once tried to talk Mark out of starting Facebook -- and good thing he never listened to me. The world would be a very different (and a lot less fun, in my opinion) place if he had.
I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.
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